Thursday, February 08, 2007

what it means to have no racial/ethnic identity

guess there's something wrong with me, guess i don't fit in
no one wants to touch it, no one knows where to begin
i just want more than one membership to more than one club

Ok, so the title is slightly misleading.
I know that I do have a racial/ethnic identity; I'm a European mutt, and the highest percentage of ancestry is probably Italian (Sicilian!), although the plethora of ancestral countries makes it hard to say for sure. Being European, I know that I have that privilege, and I don't try to pretend that I do not.
So, technically, I'm white, or Caucasian.
But that's not my identity. That's not how other people identify me. That's not how I identify myself.

I've never identified as white, or seen myself as very similar to white people. It wasn't until I learned that "European" (especially western and southern, which is my heritage) meant "Caucasian" that I started to try to see myself as such.
When I first filled out a form on my own that asked for my "Race/Ethnicity," I was probably in 3rd or 4th grade, and I had to ask my mom, because I didn't know. I don't remember which box I wanted to check, but I know that it was one of the "brown" categories, and I was surprised when my mom told me to check "Caucasian." I'd seen "Caucasians" and white people on TV, and I knew I didn't look like them.
I checked "Caucasian" from then on, without really thinking about it, but knowing that I didn't fit in with the other people who always checked that box.

I have very dark skin. My best explanation for this is my Sicilian background; my dad, who's half Sicilian, is also very dark (we'd have tanning contests in the summer, to see who could get darkest). Sicily is a large island in the Mediterranean, pretty close to Somalia and a couple other African countries on the northeastern coast, which means that at some point, one (or more) of my ancestors probably got jiggy with an East African who traveled to Sicily (or vice versa).

I've never had anyone assume I was Italian. The identity that people ascribe to me has ranged from Ethiopian/Somalian (understandable) to Spanish to Middle Eastern to South Asian to Mexican to South American (and more). All "brown" identities. All people of color.
When I got to Smith, a friend asked me if I was in Prism - the org for queer people of color. When I joined Prism, they put me on the mailing list of queer people of color (as opposed to just the "allies" list).
It's not just white people who assume I'm "Other." Almost all of my friends who identify as women of color have been surprised when I tell them I'm "just" Italian. They've all assumed I'm "Other" as well.

When applying to colleges, I almost always marked "Caucasian" or "white," because I know that I'm not "really" a p.o.c., and I didn't want to be fodder for these institutions' surface attempts at increasing diversity or take any benefits that may have been extended to "real" p.o.c.'s. Sometimes, I'd mark "other," but I would never specify when they asked.

But in high school, when I realized that I was almost always being treated as "other," as a woman of color, I stopped checking "white" when I didn't feel morally obligated to proclaim my privilege.
Because, truth is, nobody ever extends that privilege to me. I have white privilege, technically, but not because anyone's ever assumed I have it. Often, I would assume I had it, and often, I would be denied access to it because my skin colour does not fit as "white."

The identity other people ascribe to me is almost invariably "Other."
The identity I give myself? I have no answer to that. I'm brown-skinned. I'm Other, but I'm still other than Other, because I'm technically not that kind of Other.
I have white privilege by virtue of technicality, but I'm never afforded that privilege by anyone other than myself.

I'm filling out my registration form for the 21st Annual Reproductive Rights to Social Justice Conference at Hampshire College (shameless plug: go register! It's free!), and it asks for "Ethnic/Racial Background."
I don't feel comfortable checking "Caucasian."
I checked "Other," but it requires a specification.
I have no specification. Because I have no racial/ethnic identity. I have no clear background. I'm brown, but I'm white. I'm Other, but I'm the norm that Other is defined in opposition to. I'm a walking contradiction of identities.

Who do I become, then? Who do I identify with? What do I identify as?
I can't answer these questions. Because I have no "real" or "authentic" identity.